In a week where Julius Caesar has become the most talked about play in the world, the Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre school co-production couldn't feel more timely. Our politics couldn't be more fragile: a general election in Britain that has revealed we don't want any of our leaders in power, a country divided right down the middle with what should happen next. So Shakespeare's play, which looks at the consequences of bringing down a political leader unlawfully, couldn't feel more pertinent.
Simon Dormandy, perhaps wisely, has not placed the action slap bang in the middle of our own turbulence but relocated the action to modern Italy, though with visual flourishes that recollect the past, the Black-shirted Metellus wouldn't look out of place in the fascist kingdom of Mussolini, Caesar looking down at the carnage that has befallen his country since his assassination looks like Don Corleone overseeing his empire at the beginning of The Godfather.
This Caesar is played by Julian Glover, he of the big blockbuster, most recently five years in the world of Westeros as part of Game Of Thrones. He is supported by other veteran actors Lynn Farleigh and John Hartoch while the rest of the named cast is made up of the theatre school graduates. This collaboration arguably is the most exciting drama school project in the country, a chance for the baton to be handed down from one generation close to the end of their careers to another just setting out. These students turn professional during the course of the run, there can't be much better first jobs to graduate into.
Of course, it's not completely altruistic for Bristol Old Vic to collaborate on this project. It is also an opportunity to stage the epic on regional budgets. Fifteen actors are swelled up by a further eight supernumeraries. There are moments as they swell the stage, spread graffiti on Sarah Mercadé's brutalist set, and take up residency in the auditorium when the roof threatens to raise. Brutus and Mark Anthony's contrasting speeches over the body of Caesar becomes a true debating chamber, as we see both orators delicately shift their audience from one side to another. Yet arguably Dormandy has pushed them to do too much, the speeches getting lost in the passionate crowds' responses. It's a sign of a production that doesn't yet feel fully on top of its lights and shades.
Glover holds the stage with an aura that comes from a fifty-plus-year career working with the greats, a man who you can easily imagine drawing pack dog admiration. Yet there is steel beneath the charm, a dark glint that suggests the conspirators may be right in taking him down for the safety of the country. Out of the students, it is Freddie Bowerman as Brutus who most stands toe to toe with him, portraying a decent man caught in an impossible situation. With his towering height, crisp, clipped tones and flowing blonde mane he could easily see the same kind of career trajectory as James Norton.
Rosie Gray and Eleanor House as gender-flipped conspirators both make telling contributions but generally, the performances don't yet fully fill the theatre. Dormandy should be an ideal man for this project, having helped kick-start many a career as Head of Drama at Eton, but this is a project that feels workmanlike, combining moments of strong stage imagery with others where the energy is dropped. See it to witness a new crop of exciting talent entering the profession, just don't expect it to be as incisive or as explosive as it could.